Billy Graham has come home.
A hearse carrying the body of the Charlotte-born evangelist arrived at the library bearing his name Saturday afternoon. It was part of a 10-car motorcade, complete with police escort, that departed from his ministry’s training center in Asheville a few hours earlier.
“My father made me promise long ago that we would take him back to Charlotte after he died,” Graham’s son, Franklin, tweeted from the motorcade.
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Along the 130-mile route, the motorcade was met by Billy Graham admirers who lined up by the hundreds, even by the thousands, along mountain town roads, interstate highways and Charlotte city streets. They waved Bibles, took pictures with their phones, held up “Thank You” signs, and hoisted American and Christian flags. One man near Marion even played bagpipes to honor the man who began life on a dairy farm and went on to become a globe-trotting preacher and pastor to U.S. presidents.
“He was a powerful speaker who made you pay attention,” said Steven Culpepper, who waited for the motorcade at the corner of Stonewall Avenue and South Boulevard in Charlotte. He was joined by wife Carol and 13-year-old son, Ethan.
“We believe in the Jesus message he was preaching,” said Carol, who described her nights singing in the choir at Graham’s 1996 crusade in Charlotte as “a little bit like heaven on earth.”
Also eager to witness Graham’s return to Charlotte was Kristin Whittaker. The 24-year-old production worker for NASCAR said she was there to salute this historical figure whose crusades had shaped some of her older family members.
“I grew up going on field trips to his library,” she said. “And I want to be able to say that I was part of this.”
When the motorcade reached the Billy Graham Library, it was welcomed by family members, including Franklin, his four siblings, and Jean Ford of Charlotte, Billy Graham’s younger sister and only surviving sibling. They all walked silently behind the casket as grandson Will Graham and other pall bearers carried it into the library, where a private service was planned.
On Monday and Tuesday, shuttles will transport members of the public to the library grounds, to view Graham’s closed plywood casket. It will sit in his boyhood home, which was restored and relocated.
Funeral and burial services will be held next Friday on the library grounds for Graham, who finished in Gallup Poll’s annual list of most admired men a record 61 times.
President Donald Trump is expected to be among the 2,300 invited guests, all gathered under a massive tent in the library parking lot.
The day began in Asheville, at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove.
Some rose early for the chance to be among the first admirers to pay their respects. That included Dawn Capps, 47, who got up at 5:30 a.m. in West Asheville to take a streetside position in downtown Black Mountain “just to pay tribute to his life’s work furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ. He molded an example of what I would wish to be like: his humility, his kindness.”
Franklin Graham, in another tweet written along the route, called the turnout of well-wishers “overwhelming.”
“The outpouring of love we are seeing as we travel from Asheville to Charlotte via the motorcade with my father @BillyGraham is overwhelming. People lining the streets, the overpasses,” the younger Graham wrote. “Thank you.”
To many in western North Carolina, Graham, who was 99 when he died last Wednesday morning at his longtime home in Montreat, was a neighbor.
Hundreds of people lined the streets of downtown Black Mountain as Graham left his beloved Blue Ridge Mountains haven for the last time.
Only the sounds of clicking cell phones, the whir of two helicopters circling overhead and a few “thank yous” broke the silence as a procession of two black Cadillac hearses and a half-dozen black SUVs moved down East State Street toward Interstate 40.
“Millions of people would love to be here right now but can’t,” a woman in the crowd whispered to her companions as a State Highway Patrol escort of eight motorcycles came into view. “And here we are, just (living) 15 minutes away. That’s huge, ain’t it?”
The gathering crowd held mostly local residents, but Ann Lyons had flown in from Texas for the procession.
Her minister grandfather had known Graham, and the family has deep roots in Montreat, the small town in a mountain cove where the Grahams had lived for more than 60 years.
“Montreat’s a special place,” Lyons said. “You can still feel that small-town feeling.”
Lindsay Higgins had lived just a few doors down from Graham since moving to Montreat from San Diego three years ago. She never got to meet the famous evangelist as his health declined, but said it was “special just knowing he was nearby.
“It’s very sad,” said Higgins, 33. “You can definitely feel it in Montreat. Just knowing that he’s not here — there aren’t enough people like him in the world, so it’s really sad.”
Lynda Davis, 69, a former housekeeper for Graham gospel singer George Beverly Shea, sat with a hand-lettered, neon-yellow sign beside her folding chair. “Well done thou good and faithful servant,” it said of the man Davis calls “our Mr. Billy.”
Near Hickory, people waiting for the motorcade parked their cars and trucks off Hwy. 321, and lined up or sat along the road. They waved Bibles and signs. Some positioned themselves along an overpass, hoisting large American and Christian flags.
Others also lined up along an overpass on Morehead Street in Charlotte to view the procession.
The motorcade went past sites that had been special in Graham’s life.
They included the former site of the Black Mountain Drug Store, where Graham used to ride his horse. And the town’s old train station, where Graham would board to get to Washington or New York. Then, from those cities, he’d fly on to crusades around the world.
In Charlotte, it passed the church he and his family attended when he was a youngster. The building at the corner of East Boulevard and South Boulevard is now occupied by Grace Covenant Church.
But when “Billy Frank” got his first religious education there, it was white-columned Chalmers Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Born in 1918, he was a member of the graduating class of the church's Beginner’s Department in 1924.
Saturday’s procession marked the start of nearly a week of mourning for Graham.
After the Monday-Tuesday viewing in the old Graham homestead, ceremonies will be held later in the week that are designed to echo other highlights in Graham’s life and career.
On Wednesday and Thursday, his body will lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington. It’s a city Graham visited often over the years: to say prayers at presidential inaugurations, to offer solace in times of national crisis and to receive honors from Congress and the president.
Graham’s funeral service will be at noon Friday on the library grounds. About 2,300 invited guests will gather under a massive tent meant to recall Graham’s 1949 crusade in Los Angeles. It was that eight-week event – held under two circus tents that came to be called the “canvas cathedral” – that first brought him to the nation’s attention. It drew about 350,000 people and reporters flocked in to cover it for their newspapers and radio stations.
At Friday’s funeral, Franklin Graham, who now leads the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, will speak along with his four siblings.
Former President George W. Bush, meanwhile, plans to visit the library on Monday to pay tribute to Graham, who “changed my life,” Bush wrote in a Wall Street Journal column published after Graham’s death.
Billy Graham and his longtime crusade choir director, Cliff Barrows, mapped out the order of the funeral, including favorite hymns, years ago, said a spokesman for the BGEA.
Friday’s funeral service will be followed by a private burial. Graham will be laid to rest on the library grounds, at the foot of a cross-shaped walkway.
He’ll be buried next to Ruth, his wife of 64 years, who died in 2007.
His grave marker will read: “Billy Graham, Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It will also include a Bible citation: “John 14:6.”
That verse reads: “Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ ”
More chances to say goodbye
▪ Monday and Tuesday, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., shuttle buses will transport people to the Charlotte library grounds. There, they’ll stand in line outside to view Graham’s closed casket in his boyhood home, which has been restored and relocated. Those wanting to view Graham’s casket in his family homestead at the Billy Graham Library will be shuttled from two off-site locations: the parking lots at the Operation Christmas Child warehouse, 7100 Forest Point Blvd. in south Charlotte, and from the Charlotte Valet Business Lot 2 at 5601 Wilkinson Blvd. at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
▪ On Wednesday and Thursday, thousands are expected to file into the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where Graham’s body will lie in honor.